Forty years into his recording career, John Hiatt has chosen to title his 22nd studio album, Terms of My Surrender. Surrender? Is that as in Cheap Trick? Or Appomattox? Hiatt laughs, tentatively, at the choice.
“It’s my Appomattox,” he says, wryly. “Really I don’t know where it came from, that idea of trying to arrange the terms of my surrender. I don’t get to do that. It’s a labor in vain in that respect, if you think you can negotiate that with anyone, or anything. In reference to the title song, it’s in terms of love. You’ve got to give it up. The song says, ‘I can’t negotiate the terms.’”
That’s an essence, perhaps the essence, of the 11 songs here, the 11 stories they tell and, together perhaps, one story. Always a keen observer of life’s flings and foibles alike, usually mixed well together, Hiatt’s insights and skills at sharing them have only sharpened over the year.
With his longtime guitarist Doug Lancio taking the producer reins, Hiatt set out to bring the songs’ character (and characters) into intimate focus. There’s a close-up, patina-festooned bluesy quality tying the tales together. But it’s blues in the knotty backwoods sense, as if sprung from the Delta loam. It’s completely a band effort, his current group, which he calls simply the Combo, a tight-yet-loose unit from years together on the road — Lancio on guitars, banjo and mandolin, Nathan Gehri on bass, Kenneth Blevins on drums, with keyboards from John Coleman on some of the tracks. But it all flows from the leader.
“I had this group of songs and wanted to feature my guitar and voice — oddly enough,” he says. “However peculiar it might be, I thought, ‘Let’s put it out front and see.’”
Lancio agreed. They settled into his cozy studio, a “funky little place in East Nashville” as Hiatt describes it, for a set of unfussy, highly of-the-moment sessions, many of them essentially done in one basic take. Hiatt had in mind playing some rough-edged electric guitar for the core sound, but the producer thought acoustic would be a better fit for the songs. “I agreed,” Hiatt says. “And we ran it through the amp and it became the sound of the record — my voice and my guitar and that was the thing. You know, my singing, I’ve dropped down to a lower register. I’ve for a long time sung from the middle to the top, and this is kind of down from there. It seemed to work, fit the songs, fit the feel. And it’s easier to sing them, oddly enough.”
He pauses a second. “Plus I’m 61 and I don’t have that top range any more.” Another pause, before the zinger. “I don’t have the top of anything.”
That right there is a strong thread running through the album. The tales aren’t autobiographical, he stresses. But they are still, in many regards, his. “It’s more stories, storytelling, from different perspectives,” he says. But he allows, “I guess from a point of view. I guess it’s mine, if you want to put it that way, at a given time. It changes.”
He cites the song “Face of God,” in which the narrator asks how long he must suffer before seeing said face. It’s of course straight out of Christian theology, spiked with a line drawing on a Kenneth Patchen poem: “They say God is the Devil until you look him in the eye.”
“At the end he’s saying to his woman, ‘I’ve done enough, show me what you’ve got,’” Hiatt says. “That’s not the way I feel about things. This guy’s genuinely in some kind of struggle to lift himself out of whatever he’s struggling with. He’s got issues — issues with people who have big cars and show their wealth, while he’s coming in through the kitchen door. That’s definitely not me. I come in the kitchen door.”
The run of albums starting with 2000’s Crossing Muddy Waters through this new one is arguably the most consistently, fully realized expression of his considerable gifts as a writer and performer. Not to diminish his early accomplishments, of course. There are thre